Washington rebuffed a contention by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it was ill-informed of East Jerusalem building plans when it leveled its sharp criticism against Israel , saying Thursday it is well aware of the situation on the ground.
The White House and State Department both stridently criticized Israel on Wednesday for plans to build 2,610 homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Hamatos, saying the move would “draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies [and] poison the atmosphere.”
Netanyahu responded by implying that the US had jumped to incorrect conclusions about the intended neighborhood.
“It’s worth learning the information properly before deciding to take a position like that,” he told reporters.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday that the US was well aware of the situation in the East Jerusalem neighborhood, as sources in Jerusalem had provided the government with clear information regarding the approved construction plans.
Defending against questions as to whether the State Department was out of line in issuing its ringing condemnation of Israel during a visit by Netanyahu to Washington, Psaki emphasized twice that the comments “were responsive to a situation on the ground” and not at all connected to Netanyahu’s meeting with President Barack Obama.
Psaki ducked questions about whether the US would take any action beyond rhetorical vitriol should Israel continue building plans in the southeast Jerusalem neighborhood. Instead, Psaki answered that “Israel remains a friend and ally” — a contrast to Wednesday’s warning that Israel’s building will “distance their closest allies.”
Backers of the Givat Hamatos plan have pointed out that last week’s approval was a technical step in a process that was approved nearly two years ago.
Psaki said that in discussing Givat Hamatos “we’re talking about settlement activity — the fact that there are multiple stages in the process, the fact that it continued,” adding that the advancement of those stages is a “cause for concern.”
When asked about Netanyahu’s allegations that the US was telling Jews that they could not buy houses in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, which several Jewish families moved into earlier the week, Psaki did not clarify Washington’s position regarding the Ir David group’s independent purchase of Arab-owned houses there.
Instead, Psaki said that there were questions involving building permits and construction — an answer that seemed to address the municipality’s involvement in Givat Hamatos rather than the private initiative in Silwan.
On Wednesday, the city’s deputy mayor said a Jerusalem committee gave its final approval last week to advance the construction of several thousand housing units in Givat Hamatos, in Jerusalem’s southeast corner.
The news came just as Netanyahu was meeting with Obama in Washington, partially souring the sit-down according to some reports.
While both leaders were all smiles during their brief press appearance together Wednesday, some reports indicated Obama expressed unhappiness over the approval of the East Jerusalem housing project, as well as a recent step by a right-wing group to move Jewish families into seven houses in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan.
Also on Thursday, France joined in condemning the approval, saying it would create the first new settlement in East Jerusalem in 15 years.
“This announcement directly threatens the two-state solution” at a time when all efforts should be focused on peace, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, calling on the Israeli authorities to reverse their decision.
Psaki’s comments did little to assuage her critics, who complained Thursday that the administration’s castigation of Israel Wednesday played into the hands of Israel’s opponents.
Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director, issued a statement Thursday afternoon describing comments made by Psaki and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest as “myopic, ill-timed and off the mark.”
“The United States and Israel should remain solidly focused on the issues the President and Prime Minister outlined in public comments before their private meeting — shared concerns about the global threat of Iran’s nuclear program, the battle against the peril to the region from brutal extremists, and a way forward for Israel and the Palestinians — after the seven weeks of fighting — to stop Hamas rocket attacks against Israel,” Foxman suggested. “Just days after the President told the UN that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far from the main destabilizing factor in the region, elevating the issue of settlement construction to center stage by calling into question Israel’s commitment to peace and suggesting it is a potential wedge in its alliances is misplaced.”
Foxman asserted that “the escalation and harshness of U.S. criticism ignores and, ultimately, serves to reinforce” what he described as the “intransigence” of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s aggressive stance toward Israel and apparent rejection of current negotiations frameworks.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio also weighed in on the criticism, complaining that “the Obama administration’s decision to slam Israel for housing construction in Jerusalem, even as the President hosted Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House yesterday, was deplorable.”
“Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and the United States should not be condemning zoning and permitting decisions made by Jerusalem’s municipal government,” wrote Rubio in a statement issued Thursday.
Rubio also took the administration to task for “the insinuation that Israel could and should have done more to avoid civilian casualties during recent operations in Gaza,” which he described as “a shameful attack on an ally.”
Rubio accused the administration of “living in a fantasy world where we are always just one step from a renewal of the peace process and the achievement of a comprehensive agreement,” and ignoring the “fact of the matter that Israel does not have a viable negotiating partner.”
On Wednesday, Netanyahu rejected the American condemnations telling reporters upon his return from the White House to New York: “I don’t understand this criticism, and I don’t accept this position.”
Israel effectively annexed East Jerusalem in 1981 and maintains that it has the right to develop housing for both Israelis and Palestinians across the capital.
“I say this firmly and clearly: Building in Jerusalem is not poisonous and harmful – rather, it is essential, important and will continue with full force,” Mayor Nir Barkat said in statement Thursday. “I will not freeze construction for anyone in Israel’s capital.”
The neighborhood’s approval, given on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah last week according to anti-settlement group Peace Now, marks the final step before tenders can be issued in the area.
The neighborhood, currently housing a handful of trailer homes amid scrubland in Jerusalem’s southeast corner, lies in territory annexed by Israel but claimed by Palestinians to be an integral part of a future Palestinian state.
Critics say Jewish housing there would cut the West Bank city of Bethlehem off from Arab parts of the capital.